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The Polari Prize: A Celebration of LGBTQ+ Literature

Born out of the Polari Salon organisation, the Polari Prize is the first and largest UK award for LGBTQ+ literature. As it’s celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2020, we decided to look at this year’s shortlist and how the prize has changed over time. 

During the first half of the 20th century and prior to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, Polari was a secret language used primarily by gay men, and to a lesser extent the rest of the LGBTQ+ community, as a means of skirting the law. It was an amalgamation of several slang-isms largely derived from Italian, Cockney, Yiddish and the languages used by different transient communities. While it was never committed to print or tape recordings, this entirely verbal language served as an excellent means of gauging an individual’s interest. It was ingenious way for gay men to express themselves without risking the danger of unwittingly outing themselves to someone who may alert the authorities. 

Originally established by Paul Burston in 2007, The Polari Salon sought to promote writing which centered LGBTQ+ experiences. It began when Burston’s inner activist decided to take a stand against the personal injustice of being excluded from literary events on account of being an author of gay fiction. Once restricted to a handful of people above a Soho bar, the organisation quickly grew and by 2009, it moved to London’s Southbank Centre where it continues to host events for audiences of up to 150 people. 

A couple of years later, in 2011, Burston decided to launch The Polari First Book Prize after observing an increase in emerging LGBTQ+ literature. There was also a growing desire to acknowledge the achievements of these debut authors and celebrate the books they were creating. Diversity, and especially the goal of highlighting the work of LGBTQ+ authors, has always been at the core of Burston’s work. That continues to be the case to this day as Polari has resulted in some incredible shortlisted books for the 2020 prize, the winner of which will be announced in the October.

The Polari Prize 2020 Shortlist:

Mama’s Boy: A Story from Our Americas by Dustin Lance Black (John Murray)

Mama’s Boy is a memoir about Dustin Lance Black’s experiences growing up as a gay Mormon in Texas where his sexuality seemed directly at odds with his mother’s religion. As Black relates how her story shaped his, Mama’s Boy celebrates the bond between mother and son, as well the perseverance it takes to overcome differences and stand together in hope and optimism to create change.

In At The Deep End by Kate Davies (The Borough Press) 

Touted as an LGBTQ+ Bridget Jones, In At The Deep End follows twenty-something Julia as she comes to the unwelcome realisation that she has been looking for love in all the wrong places. Beginning with her sexual awakening, Julia starts a new lesbian life and discovers that cool London parties and gay bars are only the tip of the iceberg.

This Brutal House by Niven Govinden (Dialogue Books)

This Brutal House examines our collective notions of family, sexuality and belonging. It follows five of New York’s ageing drag mothers sitting in silent protest on the steps of City Hall. For years, children of drag houses have been going missing and their absences ignored by law enforcement. In three distinctive voices, Govinden explores what happens when a generation known for their glitz and glamour are jaded, worn down and now demanding justice.

Blue Wallpaper by Robert Hamberger (Waterloo Press) 

Blue Wallpaper is Hamberger’s fourth poetry collection. Split into six sections, each one takes you through journeys of friendship, family and the many manifestations of love. A lyrical sonnet writer dealing with topics like his mother’s dementia and ageing with his husband, Hamberger’s beautiful writing makes him a shoo-in for the Polari prize.

Trans Power: Own Your Gender by Juno Roche (Jessica Kingsley Publishers)

Trans Power: Own your Gender dissolves boundaries and sets to reinvent the term “trans” into something more than the typical connotations allow. Roche interviews trans activists and thinkers, exploring identity in a community which doesn’t comply with heteronormative ideas. Many have lauded it as a powerful book that gives an insight into how labels define bodies and the complications that arise from this.

Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan (Harvill Secker) 

Likened to Angela Carter’s work, Things We Say in the Dark is a set of feminist tales concerned with the terrifying, the unknown and the unsettling. Due to the unique writing style, it is already a fan favourite. The stories deal with themes such as isolation and longing via an exploration of the female body.



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